Editorial: Ditching traffic court denies justice

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There’s little doubt that Alberta’s traffic court needs a major overhaul. Part of the provincial court of Alberta, the division processes about two million traffic tickets a year tying up vast amounts of judicial and police resources — and still, there’s a backlog of cases.

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But instead of fixing traffic court, the UCP government appears to be using its problems as an excuse to ditch it entirely.

Starting Feb. 1, traffic court will be replaced by a new system to process motorist violations. Instead of getting a ticket with a court date on it, infractions will be handled digitally. Those who choose to contest their fines will no longer have the opportunity to make a court appearance but must go through an online process involving an adjudicator instead of a judge.

Anyone receiving a ticket will have just one week to review it instead of several weeks. Those who want to challenge the ticket will have to pay a non-refundable fee of up to $150, depending on the amount of the fine.

According to provincial documents, this will divert about two million traffic tickets away from court, eliminate approximately 500,000 in-person visits a year and free up at least 10 Crown prosecutors to handle criminal matters.

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A previous PC regime also proposed streamlining traffic court by having adjudicators hear contested cases and former NDP justice minister Kathleen Ganley wanted to review it because of concerns individuals were circumventing the demerit point system through court delays.

No matter the government, eliminating traffic court comes at the cost of due process, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty and the prerogative of Albertans to have their day in court to explain why they may have been speeding or point to their otherwise clean record.

Gone will be judicial oversight, Crown discretion and the option a traffic court had to reduce fines or durations of licence suspensions. Adjudicators won’t have that flexibility; they’ll only uphold or cancel tickets. And making people pay for a hearing appears designed to deter anyone from challenging their tickets.

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It’s little wonder that this change comes with no formal announcement as yet, with less than a month before implementation.

Also worrisome is that eliminating traffic court is only Phase 2 of the Provincial Administrative Penalties Act. The first phase strengthened administrative penalties for impaired driving that took effect Dec. 1, 2020. Phase 3 of the plan is expected to extend the system to all fines under provincial jurisdiction.

Whatever the savings, they are outweighed by the loss of due process and procedural fairness. The government should look at other ways to streamline traffic court that doesn’t deny justice for the sake of efficiency.

Local editorials are the consensus opinion of the Journal’s editorial board, comprising Colin McGarrigle, Dave Breakenridge and Bill Mah.

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